A thought

Anthony Mackie said it, then Quentin Tarantino parrotted it on his podcast.

Audiences now go to see superheroes, not movie stars. OK. It’s a somewhat unfalsifiable statement — we can say that’s approximately or mostly true, not absolutely true. There’s a lot of truth IN it.

One definition of a star is “someone who will open a film.” The film might go on to flop but at least people will turn up on opening weekend to see if they like it. The Mackie-Tarantino hypothesis is that people will now turn up to see Captain America, but not necessarily to see Chris Evans if they don’t like the sound of his latest vehicle.

It’s possible that audiences could be repelled even from Captain America if the colourful piece of I.P. were placed in a novel and unattractive new context, such as CAPTAIN AMERICA GOES TO THE LAVATORY, but it’s not something that’s going to happen so we needn’t concern ourselves with it. The character is permanently fused to a certain kind of entertainment and so the punter knows exactly the kind of thing s/he is going to get.

The thought that struck me is that the studios responsible for the Marvel and DC “cinematic universes” have, in a sense, recaptured the power they had before Olivia DeHavilland made her bid for freedom. Back when there WERE stars, in the 1940s, the movie studios more or less owned them. There were a few independents, like Cary Grant, but in order to become stars, most aspirants signed longterm contracts with the studios and had to do as they were told. Refusing a project meant going on suspension, which meant your contract was extended by the amount of time the refused film would have taken to shoot. So, essentially, a star had to take the jobs offered or else potentially stay under contract forever. And when your contract was up for renewal, maybe the studio had the right to renew it built into their original contract, and unless your career was looking VERY secure, you might be reluctant to strike out in search of sound stage pastures new.

So, in effect, the studios used to own their stars.

Now they own, or have a deal for the use of, their I.P.

You can make Captain America do whatever you want. And you can recast him at will, as we have seen with the Hulk-shaped revolving door at Universal/Disney. Having Michael Keaton or Christian Bayle as Batman is equivalent to having Dick Sprang or Carmine Infantino drawing him in the comics: the fans appreciate each incarnation and can tell the difference, but it’s all Batman, which is the main thing.

We have cycled back to the kind of slave-owning the majors used to enjoy, only now, just as the sets may be digital constructs rather than physical objects, the stars aren’t flesh-and-blood at all, but inventions, name + costume + backstory + powers.

One could, of course, get into a debate about whether the old stars were strictly speaking people at all — they were IMAGES, certainly, based on or around people. They had names, often assumed; they admittedly changed costumes more than Superman, who has only two main ones; they had their own backstories, often quite as fictional as Peter Parker’s; they had powers, but we called those “star quality.”

Hitchcock said he envied Walt Disney, who, if he were dissatisfied with his leading man, could physically tear him to pieces. One has to imagine that Jack Warner, that old vaudevillian crook, would see something to envy in the modern studio’s ability to hold the copyright of its stars, a whole indentured firmament of them.

(Kudos to Mackie for actually daring to say something interesting: I hold the admittedly cranky view that the press should never interview anyone who has a film coming out, since people in that position are contractually forbidden to say anything honest.)


14 Responses to “A thought”

  1. The model of the US Comic Book industry has been transposed on to the Movies. While we were all enjoying having our childhood fun turned into ‘real life’, the higher ups managed to surgically graft a new brain into the movie business. Batman fans will read Detective comics for decades, even if they are not enjoying it, because it’s Batman and they are Batman Fans. They know that at some point the creative team will change and they are keeping the faith until then. Like Mets fans, the faith is what’s important, not the enjoyment. So Warners and Disney can now manufacture a clearly defined entertainment product that has a fandom ready to pay, who don’t necessarily expect to like the product, but they do expect it. Quality isn’t the point, that’s incidental.

  2. It’s quite remarkable, especially when you consider how few people actually read comics. At this point, they are movie franchises with comic book spin-offs, no matter the original order of creation.

    I wonder if the comics net as much profit as the toys?

    I saw the last Avengers movie and so far I’ve held fast to my resolution not to see any more. The Batman didn’t tempt me too much, the rest haven’t appealed at all. Oh, Sam Raimi doing Dr Strange is something I might choose to see at a later date, when it’s on TV. But I don’t really have any hope that it will exude any of the weirdness of either the original comic or Raimi’s previous best films.

  3. “Hulk-shaped revolving door” is a memorable phrase, for better or (almost certainly) for worse.

  4. As soon as they achieved a satisfactory, if not actually incredible Hulk, they failed to give him his own movie, an oddly cheering hint of the kind of inefficiency that old-time Hollywood was rife with.

  5. Mark E Fuller Says:

    Not entirely sure…would the Guy Ritchie Sherlock films have done so well if he had cast someone other than a post-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr ?? Like a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr….or Spotlight, without Mark Ruffalo in the cast ??
    Extending the superhero world a fraction to include Bond, would Knives Out have got quite so much attention but for Daniel Craig’s casting ??
    None of this is entirely new – the MCU goes back to the late 30s itself – and actors have been franchise stars since Feuillade and Pearl White serials, taking in William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Thin Man films, the MGM Dr Kildares, Andy Hardys, and the George Sanders Saints and Falcons from the Golden Age.
    It may suck up a lot of screen time in the cinemas, but if it helps to keep their doors open until the balance changes back, then fine. But cinema history does show us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
    Oh, and DO see The Batman when you have the chance; the best Film Noir for many’s the year.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    The deal with modern franchises is that the actors have to commit to multiple sequels, which largely rules out the most bankable stars unless the studios cede serious control as well as ridiculous money. Possibly viable if the actor IS the franchise (Tom Cruise = Mission Impossible), but not for expansive media empires of superheroes, wizards, spacemen, etc.

    Recalling that ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE starred an unknown first-time actor, the makers confident James Bond was the star. They were right, except perhaps in a choice who wasn’t ready for a long haul as Bond. Thereafter the Bonds were either familiar TV faces — unthinkable once upon a time — or solid but not quite famous working actors.

    The new Hollywood ideal is not so much a character who can be readily recast but a “world” where even characters are expendable. Marvel, DC, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter’s “Wizarding World”, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and others are all about the settings they inhabit, from accumulated backstory (or canon, as fans call it) to the physical settings. Thus you have Marvel phasing out original franchise characters (at least their unmasked identities as played by Downey and others who’ve grown tired / unaffordable), while Star Trek has been launching new starships with new crews for decades, and Star Wars manifests itself in rampant sequels and prequels. And it seems everybody is getting in on the multiple universe action, whether as part of a grand cosmic scheme or just an excuse to do another product (such as Lego versions).

  7. Most of the actors in the MCU and DCU had some kind of fame beforehand, and yes, they went on to make more movies building on their fame – though these once more became hit-and-miss affairs without the genre-IP combo behind them.

    The Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films basically ARE superhero movies.

    It’s very heartwarming to me that Downey has followed his stint as Tony Stark with a doc about his dad. This is the kind of thing I was hoping he’d do with his fame.

    Spotlight is the kind of serious drama that’s been all but extirpated from cinemas.

    I think there was a hope that all those MCU actors would then get interesting films made, but all that kind of stuff – drama – is going to TV and streamers.

  8. The spoils of the movie spectaculars have so far failed to float their source comics by any significant amount. Comics sell abysmally. Marvel & DC are effectively IP holding companies servicing huge merchandising empires. The comics are produced as a means of maintaining copyright and potentially generating some more merchandisable IP while paying the creators minimally for their dreams. Comics is in effect an IP sweatshop.

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The death of the “movie star” has been ongoing for years I’d say. I remember people noting that there were fewer movie stars in the 90s than the 70s and so on. You had a constant attempt to promote leading men and leading ladies as the next big thing but only a few had staying power and a smaller number did genuinely good films.

    The difference was that until the superhero thing started with the Marvel movies there was never any sense of what could replace it. Eventually though they’re going to face a problem: only very few superheroes but very many actors. And however you recast actors for a set number of movies that’s still going to exclude more than it brings in, especially since only a handful of these characters have the interest and prestige.

  10. Simon Kane Says:


  11. Simon Kane Says:

    Ah, it said sorry this couldn’t be posted. I’ll try again.. Now that Disney are putting so much content online, Mackie’s comment doesn’t really tie in with how I’m currenty using my Odeon Card: I caught See How They Run and the excellent The Woman King a couple of weeks okay, the excellent Triangle Of Sadness and perfectly okay Black Adam – a Rock vehicle, because who knows who Black Adam is – this week, and I still plan on seeing Living, After Sun, Decision to Leave, maybe The Menu, maybe the new McDonagh, and, yes, Wakanda Forever – which doesn’t have Black Panther in – all of which are currently out. There are frankly a crazy number of new films out at the moment I want to see.

  12. Black Adam is like a great many superhero things – the name is meaningless to the public, but you still know what you’re going to get.

    I’ve been a very poor moviegoer of late and even feel guilty that, because we have Netflix at the mo, we’ll probably use that to watch Glass Onion, despite having loved Knives Out on the big screen.

  13. Or DO you? I mean, I’m not saying watch Black Adam, but setting the (made-up) national myth of a (made-up) colonised power against a bunch of western super-heroes with no more right to be there than the colonial enemy meant I genuinely didn’t know where this film would go (but I should have: it’s not a square the film manages to circle. And there’s only so many floaty men you can watch punched into a trench. I’m definitely not saying watch it.)

  14. But the fact that the plot has a surprise or two doesn’t mean that an audience assuming the film will have super-punches and large-scale destruction and an action scene every ten minutes would be wrong/disappointed. Genres work with a winning combo of the familiar and the surprising. That’s the fun challenge: make something that satisfies fan expectations but delivers the right kind of pleasing surprise without bending the form out of shape.

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